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Review by Rob Lester


Broadway Records

Is she princess or peasant? Is it factual or fictionalized? We'll get to those questions, but the more important question when it comes to the cast recording of Anastasia—or any musical, no matter its ancestry or the merits of the production itself—is just: Is the listening experience on its own rewarding? In this case, my reply is a resounding "yes!"

The recording is sumptuously produced, lush, with appealing performances from a strong cast, armed with songs that further the plot and reveal the feelings, foibles, or fears of characters. The orchestra, led by Tom Murray, brings a rich tapestry of soundscapes: romantic richness, nostalgic tenderness, and some welcome crackling and percussive energy to the more bustling ensemble numbers. Memories and dreams figure prominently in the material, and an overall atmosphere evoking these gives the recording an ethereal and swirling feel. Nicely defined colors and details bring triumphant or tender accents and a real underlying pulse with the orchestration of Doug Besterman, who also did those honors for the 1997 animated film with songs by the team of composer Stephen Flaherty (who did this production's effective vocal arrangements) and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. Several of those numbers—some with different words—have been brought back for this stage version, and the pair fleshed out their score with a large swath of new numbers that are anything but filler. With so much new and different, we don't even have to have the debate that those who own the film soundtrack's tracks would find the Broadway recording redundant.

Notably, the stage version allows those who grew up with the film, largely because of the kid-friendly, kid-targeted elements, to "grow into" the more mature musical theatre audience kind of writing here. Rather than go for the cute factor and put the movie on stage, the talking animals have been ditched and so has the ghost of Rasputin. In interviews, the show's bookwriter Terrence McNally has said that ex-communicating those characters and being more attentive to historical accuracy were conditions of his assenting to reunite with the songwriting team he'd enjoyed success with for Ragtime. We don't hear much of his book on the recording, but a few lines within the penultimate track, containing reprises of new songs "Still" and "The Neva Flows," contain hardly the images to bring sugar-coated dreams to kiddies. For example, when our heroine, confronting the son of a man who was among those ordered to assassinate all the Romanovs, we hear a chilling, "Look at their faces in mine, hear their screams, imagine their terror, see their blood." Then comes the ending, as the musical's creators designed it, which I won't spoil here.

Historical Note: Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the murder of exiled Czar Nicolas, his wife Alexandra, and their five children. In the days before the use of DNA to identify people and compare them to their relatives' make-up, conjecture and mystery had longer lives. Human nature being what it is, people wanted to believe rumors that the youngest daughter, Anastasia, did escape, that she'd be found and restored to glory years later. Among projects fueled by the former mystery were a play and a 1956 live-action, non-musical film and the 1965 Broadway musical, Anya, with songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest adapting music of Russian composer Rachmaninoff. The musical lasted only a couple of weeks, but its recording, reissued on CD, is well worth exploring, too. The magic of musical theatre has its powers of imagination, denial, and the artistic license to present "alternate facts," and—science be damned—hope springs eternal for a happy ending where long-lost relatives are reunited and the music swells as songs are reprised. (Although the world learned in 1991 that the bodies of most of the family members had been found, it wasn't until after the animated film's release that remains of the two still-missing children were discovered; all were identified through DNA.)

As Anya, Christy Altomare rises to the occasion of being the story's centerpiece, with passionate vocals that stay on the calmer side of the intensity spectrum, not resorting to melodrama. An overall pretty sound doesn't descend into sugar-filled mush, although the potential is there. Sincerity reigns. She finds plenty of gradations and calibrates the emotional outpourings of longing, the joys, and the self-doubt. Her characterization is committed and involved. She is especially effective singing with Derek Klena as Dimitri, both nicely interactive and captivating in "In a Crowd of Thousands." Klena brings versatility of sound and energy as he scores with the material's numerous assignments requiring him to be impatient, buoyant, boastful, wistful, and rueful—virtually all of these are displayed in "Everything to Win," his ultimate triumph as performer here, but all of his singing moments add flavor and each makes one anticipate the next return.

John Bolton is likably earthier and devious as Vlad, the calculating man pairing up with Dimitri to pass off Anya as the real Anastasia (whom they later think maybe is the maybe-M.I.A. princess after all). Ramin Karimloo, as a troubled character not in the '97 film, is effectively brooding and dark, and if he doesn't get as much of a musical palette to show off his vocal power as he has had in other shows, his heavier role and rich tones bring valued balance. His "Still" is commandingly complex. With less to do than the other featured characters, veteran Mary Beth Peil is spot on and graceful as the dowager. Caroline O'Connor provides comic relief and a big splash of zip as her companion, Lily, making the most of her singing moments. She is only in the second act, but her presence makes impact quickly and consistently. If you listen to the tracks straight through, you may find her glee and gumption especially welcome. It may seem jarring against the many more earnest and anguished numbers, but the performances by this musical theatre pro definitely sizzle.

The singing ensemble is top drawer: diction is always good, but doesn't sound studied; they are feisty when delivering material as Russian citizens sharing and spreading rumors or the later reporters digging for answers from Lily. And, when they are required to be in a supportive or background role, echoing, being a bed of sound, supplying other-worldly voices of the deceased, the results are successful, their contributions not incidental in weight.

The booklet accompanying the CD has all the lyrics and the bits of spoken lines heard. These words are printed in white, mostly superimposed against full-color, full-page-spread photos of scenes from the production, maximizing the space to allow more view of the sets, rather than fitting smaller rectangular pictures in between text-only columns or opting for fewer photos. Beyond that and the credits, there isn't much—no essays or plot synopsis, just a couple of introductory paragraphs from Ahrens and Flaherty, telling us some basic things and stating that they'd always wanted to do a version of the "lost princess" story for the stage. Well, so they have. And its recording is a royal treasure.

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